But according to a decision rendered yesterday by New York’s highest court, you can strike the “sudden emergency” doctrine from the unfortunate driver’s list of available defenses.
We’ve all been there. Cruising along, happy as a clam, when all of the sudden the direction of your car and the angle of the sun suddenly coincide to render you helplessly blind for a moment.
What if in that moment another vehicle crosses your path or some other hazard appears in the roadway? Surely the fact that you were momentarily blinded will relieve you of liability for an accident, right?
The emergency doctrine won’t be of assistance to Derek Klink, who has been sued for the wrongful death of Irene Lifson. Both Klink and Lifson worked in the MONY Plaza office complex in Syracuse.
On Feb. 29, 2000, Klink left work around 4:00. After getting his car, Klink was faced immediately with the problem of making a left-hand turn from Harrison Place onto Harrison Street during rush hour.
Harrison Street is a three-lane, one-way road, with traffic running from east to west. Harrison Place intersects Harrison Street from the south, forming a “T” intersection. The intersection is only controlled by a stop sign for traffic emerging from Harrison Place.
At approximately 4:05, Klink was at the stop sign, creeping into the intersection, waiting for a gap in the Harrison Street traffic to make his left turn, According to Klink, he checked left and saw no pedestrians trying to cross the intersection, and then checked the oncoming Harrison Street traffic to his right.
Seeing the chance to make his turn, checked left one more time. Klink claims that, in the middle of his turn, he was blinded “all of the sudden” by the low, late-afternoon February sun. He looked down momentarily to avoid the glare.
Unfortunately, at that moment Lifson was crossing Harrison Street, right in Klink’s intended path. The woman was killed when Klink saw her too late to avoid her.
Alexander Lifson, the dead woman’s husband, sued both Klink and the city of Syracuse for negligence. The city’s alleged liability was premised on the absence of a safe, marked pedestrian crossing at the intersection, despite it being regularly used by office workers trying to get from MONY Plaza to a parking garage on the opposite side of Harrison Street.
For his part, Klink argued that the sun glare was a sudden and unforeseen occurrence that relieved him of liability for negligence. At Klink’s request, the trial judge issued an instruction on the emergency doctrine, telling jurors that they were obliged to return a defense verdict if they found that Klink was in fact faced with an emergency situation not of his own making and acted reasonably in response that emergency.
With this instruction, the jury found that Klink was not negligent. The jury also found Irene Lifson 15 percent at fault for her own death, with remaining 85 percent allocated to the city.
Lifson’s husband argued on appeal that Klink never should have had the benefit of the emergency doctrine. Thursday, the New York Court of Appeals agreed that the emergency doctrine was not available to Klink as a defense.
“Klink was about to turn to the west at a time of day that the sun would be setting. It is well known, and therefore cannot be considered a sudden and unexpected circumstance, that the sun can interfere with one’s vision as it nears the horizon at sunset, particularly when one is heading west. …
“This is not to say that sun glare can never generate an emergency situation but, under the circumstances presented, there is no reasonable view of the evidence under which sun glare constitutes a qualifying emergency,” the court said. (Lifson v. City of Syracuse)
So it looks as though Klink will be facing a new trial, this time without the benefit of a formal legal theory to hang his “sun got it my eyes” claim.
This seems rather unfortunate given that the jury plainly believed Klink when he testified that sun glare prevented him from seeing Lifson in time. Why the redo, particularly when we’re talking about a pedestrian who was killed trying to cross a busy street during rush hour at a location where there was no marked crosswalk?
– Pat Murphy